Monday, August 24, 2009

Hotels and parables

A final reflection on our Sri Lankan hotel experience that kind of sums the whole thing up.

Hikkaduwa was pretty trashed by the tsunami in 2004. When we stayed there in 2007, the hotel we chose was part of an international chain and had had considerable help in getting itself back on its feet. It was full when we looked at the website ahead of this year's visit - it was also pretty expensive!

The Supercorals where we stayed wasn't so lucky. The sea washed away the ground floor and did quite a bit of damage to the pool and outdoor bar area. Five years later, it's still being rebuilt. Half the hotel was boarded up with workmen coming and going doing major plumbing and electrical work.

Our room was comfortable, the bathroom was excellent, the air conditioning was quiet and wonderfully effective. And given that we were paying the equivalent of £13 per person per night bed and breakfast, we thought that it was good value. And to be honest even after the loss of my mobile phone from our locked room, I'd consider staying there again.

We felt that our presence was a tiny vote of confidence in their reconstruction efforts, their comeback from being all-but washed away by the tsunami.

And our stay was not without its comic moments.

On the first day of multiple occupancy, we came down to breakfast at our usual time of just after 8am. It was laid out for a buffet but there was no food in it yet. 'about ten minutes,' said a bright eyed young waiter. So we sat down. What he'd failed to tell us was that the ensuing ten minutes would offer us some of the best slapstick we've ever witnessed.

In an attempt to light the kerosene burners under each of the large dishes that keep the buffet warm, two waiters managed to set fire to the table cloth. Three foot high flames quickly spread as the kerosene spilled out from the burner. Other waiters arrived with cloths. For the next two or three minutes about half a dozen of them fanned the flames along the table. Eventually a manager with a jug of water and the fact that all the kerosene had burned up meant that the conflagration died down and went out.

In the meantime, another group of waiters was trying to get the toaster working. It was one of those devices where you put the bread in at one end and it falls out two or three minutes later from the other end nicely brown. Except this machine was only producing warm curly bread. One waiter thought that this was because the conveyor belt was moving too quickly, so he was trying to slow it down using spoons. After a moment or two it stopped working altogether.

So there was much frantic fiddling with the plug and cable. Still nothing. This was probably due to the fact that one of the waiters was sitting on the floor with the two ends of the power cable sticking up from his fist, completely separated from the plug in the socket. The manager motioned to him and he proceeded to shove the cable ends back into the live plug and hold them there. The toaster sprang to life - although it continued only to produced warm curly bread unless the same slice was put through it three or four times.

And we were not charged a penny for this floor show! The breakfast that eventually followed it - some half an hour after we first sat down - was pretty good too, though we avoided the fish curry and French toast.

This is a hotel with huge potential - a great location, lots of rooms, a well appointed pool in a lovely garden area with the Indian Ocean as a constant backdrop. But it requires a management revolution and an influx of high-spending tourists to achieve that potential.

In many ways, it's a tiny parable of Sri Lanka as a whole. I for one am up for investing a bit of time and cash in the country. We just need a million or so more.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Just like a Friday night in Bromley

The Hikkaduwa beach festival - the second since the tsunami - happened while we were staying at the Supercorals. As a result our hotel, which was deserted when we arrived, filled up with two Sri Lankan families and a host of young people from Colombo.

Two particular memories linger about the festivities.

The first was that on the Friday evening, as we were walking through the town on our way to a restaurant, we saw large numbers of heavily armed paramilitary police, some toting Uzi machine pistols, others with AK47s. You have to wonder what kind of trouble they were expecting!

When we saw the chief of police the following morning, he said that there'd been very little trouble, 'just lots of teenagers being naughty,' he observed. 'mainly drunk and disorderly.' It sounded like Bromley on a Friday night.

The second was the behaviour of the young people staying in our hotel. In common with young people the world over, it seems, a good time is equated with heavy drinking. The haul of bottles removed by cleaners of the rooms after the weekend would have kept a medium-sized recycling plant in business for a month. The drink of choice appeared to be vodka with a variety of mixers but there was also a brewery's worth of beer bottles and a fair haul of empty wine bottles.

Linda observed that she felt like she'd woken up in the middle of a Club 18-30 holiday - incessant noise, doors banging all night!

Alcohol is a problem on the island, like it is everywhere. The Government looks forward to the day when liquor along with cigarettes is a thing of the past. But that is a long way off. It isn't only well-healed young people getting tanked up for a weekend of partying; the poor are also prone to drink. Many of the fathers of the kids at the Hanbamtota project had problems with alcohol - a way of numbing the pain of unemployment and crushing poverty.

Often we risk having an idealised picture of the places we visit. Sri Lanka is a needy country because of poverty and natural disaster but it's needs are exacerbated by human sin and greed, fecklessness, poor government and oppressive religion that makes huge demands on the poor but offers precious little grace.

It's why the country needs a strong church that has grasped what it means to be missional communities, living for and sharing the good news about Jesus at all levels of society. It's why I'll continue to pray for my students at LBC, for the pastors I've met and worked with and the believers struggling to embody Kingdom values in their everyday lives. In fact, I'm praying for them exactly what I'm praying for myself and believers in the UK.

Friday, August 21, 2009

An encounter with law enforcement

I'm catching up with stuff and I was reminded yesterday that I hadn't blogged about the last part of our trip to Sri Lanka and especially a couple of episodes that I referred to in passing and promised to elaborate on later.

The first concerns my meeting with the chief of police at Hikkaduwa.

On the Friday we went to Hambantota to visit the Smile school, I left my British mobile phone in my hotel room and it disappeared. Assuming that it wasn't spirited away by aliens, I concluded that it had been stolen. I told the hotel manager as much but he thought it unlikely and wasn't fabulously helpful - though he did allow me to use his phone to ring my operator to report my phone's loss and get it blocked (later he tried to charge me 450 rupees for doing so but waived it when we complained).

For insurance purposes we decided that we would have to go to the police station to report its loss so that we got a crime number to make a claim once we get home.

So we found a tuk tuk driver -Nimal who I blogged about earlier - and went to the relatively newly built, three storey police station on the edge of the town. A man in a smart brown uniform was just getting out of white patrol car with his family and asked what we needed. He turned out to be the chief of police for the area.

He invited us up to his office and showed us to seats in front of his desk. Lifting his jacket, he removed his automatic pistol from his belt and put it on the desk and sat down. It turned out that not only did he speak very good English, but he'd also taken part in exchange trips to police forces in Harrow, Leicester, Cambridge and one or two other places in the UK. Since I come from Leicester and Linda from Harrow, this gave us quite a bit to talk about.

It was the time of the Hikkaduwa beach festival and the police chief lamented the lack of sleep he'd had over the previous 48 hours. 'I don't how I'm supposed to make good decisions when I'm so tired,' he said in between barking orders to various junior officers who came and went from his office.

Turning to the reason for our visit, he asked me to write down what had happened - 'but not in much in detail,' he stressed. I duly complied and in exchange he gave me a signed piece of paper confirming that I had reported the theft of my phone. It was clear that was all the attention its loss was going to get!

Suddenly, he looked down at the gun on his desk and up and me with a hint of embarrassment on his face and then picked the pistol up, apologised for leaving it out in the open and put it in the draw of his filing cabinet. Then he returned to signing the document and handed it to me.

Commiserating with us that we'd suffered such a horrible experience during our holiday, he wished us a pleasant stay and ushered us out of his office - probably keen to get some sleep before the night's festivities demanded his full attention.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Summers are for reading

Finished the wonderful Buechner's Telling the Truth. Get it and read it - especially if you are involved in any kind of ministry.

I have returned to Michael Gorman's rather harder but extremely stimulating new book on Paul's theology.

I am also reading Christopher Bryan's Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church and the Roman superpower which I got half-price in the Oxford University Press summer sale (which is nice!).

It's well written, considerably 'lighter' than Gorman and offers a nuanced interaction with a plethora of studies on Jesus and empire and in particular the work of William Horsley. Mid-way through chapter, I'd say it's pretty good.

I'm also trying to plan the autumn programme and finding myself unable to make anything work but I'll keep prodding away.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Laughing with God

I think when I first read Buechner, I didn't get it. Oh I thought it was good in an earnest, po-faced kind of a way. I think was too young, I came to it at a time when I knew everything and had a system that I was able to slot everything into and neatly file away for future recall.

Well, I'm older now. And I've just read the chapter on the gospel as comedy, sitting the garden in the afternoon sunshine and laughed and laughed - and cried - and thought that for the first time I've seen things about God that I've known to be true in theory but have never felt rumbling in the depths of my oh so serious and sorted soul.

What a joker God is! And how blessed I am that he is. because the biggest joke is that I can join him at his table, share his food and laugh along with him.

There's no point quoting any of the chapter. You need to get this book and consume it, feast on it, relish every morsel of it and find your soul nourished by it like nothing you've experienced for such a long time.

His retelling of parables - especially the prodigal son - is like hearing them for the first time and in a way that makes you realise that they are telling you your life story, including the moment when God accepts and embraces you, welcomes you into his kitchen and shares what he's just cooked for himself.

The meanings of words

I've been reflecting on John 1 for Sunday. I came across this great quote by Eugene Peterson:

'Jesus is the dictionary in which we look up the meaning of words.'
(Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, p103)

I am thinking about how we are formed by the Word, spoken into existence, transformed from one degree of glory into another by God's creative, powerful Word.

John tells us that this Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, a man who chats with us, sits and eats and drinks at our tables, tells stories, dances at weddings, laughs and cries - and always defines what it is to be human. More than that, the Word became flesh so that we might join the conversation he wants to have with us and be transformed.

So Peterson reminds us that 'Jesus is the dictionary in which we look up the meaning of words. When we look up the glory in Jesus we find - are we ready for this? - obscurity, rejection and humiliation, incomprehension and misapprehension, a sacrificial life and an obedient death: the bright presence of God backlighting what the world despises or ignores.'

It is, of course, what Jesus himself says in john 12: 20-26 (especially 23b-24) when Greeks want to make him a tourist attraction - a perenial temptation the church faces in every generation! It's a powerful reminder of the upside down values of Jesus' kingship and power.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Finding reasons to be a preacher

Thanks for Jim Gordon over at Living Wittily - one of the most consistently thought-provoking and spirit-lifting blogs around - I've started re-reading Frederick Buechner's Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.

I'd forgotten just how good it is. Buechner's prose is sublime. His portrait of Pilate in the first chapter is breath-taking and his reflection of Pilate's question to Jesus - 'what is truth'? - dazzling and unsettling and just right.

Having the sielnce that greeted Pilate's question from the lips of Jesus, Buechner says: 'What is truth? Life is truth, the life of the world, your own life, and the life inside the world you are. The task of the preacher is to hold up life to us; by whatever gifts he or she has of imagination, eloquence, simple candour, to create images of life through which we can somehow see into the wordless truth of our lives. Before the Gospel is good news, it is simply news that that's the way it is, whatever day it is of whatever year.' (p17)

Suddenly I am aware of wanting to be a preacher again. Not a purveyor of finely crafted spiritual homilies but someone who allows the truth to take shape on my lips. Buechner's book is is his Beecher Lectures on preaching delivered at Yale in the mid-70s. And yet they could have been written yesterday, such is their prescience.

Of the preacher, he says, concluding his first chapter, 'So let him use words, but, in addition to using them to explain, expound, exhort, let him use them to evoke, to set us dreaming as well as thinking, to use words as at their most prophetic and truthful, the prophets used them to stir in us memories and longings and intuitions that we starve for without knowing that we starve. Let him use words which do not only try to give answers to the questions that we ask or ought to ask but which help us to hear the questions that we do not have words for asking and to hear the silence that those questions rise out of and the silence that is the answer to those questions.'

Yes please!

Making connections

We had three encounters during our holiday in Hikkaduwa that have set me thinking about what it means to be a missional disciple. These are the stories that I'll reflect on over the coming weeks.

We were on holiday, staying in a hotel that I'll blog about separately, using the pool, going out to restaurants in the evenings, doing a bit of site-seeing during the day when we could drag ourselves away from the pool and our books (I read Tim Winton's Breath - wonderful - and am halfway through Marilynne Robinson's Gilead - completely stunningly brilliant).

In the course of our idling, we met three people and began to forge a relationship with each of them that threw up for me questions about how sharing our lives is a sharing of our faith, since that's what drives the way we live.

The last guy we met is called Nimal. He runs a turtle farm and we went as punters to see what he does. There are lots of turtle farms but his was the nearest - and hence the cheapest to get to by tuk tuk.

As he showed us round, it was clear that we were in the presence of a man of vision and passion and we connected. Our conversation strayed to his family and why he runs the farm, how he's funded and whether we could keep in touch. Having exchanged emails, we left feeling we had done more than visit a tourist attraction.

Our tuk tuk driver that morning was by a strange coincidence also called Nimal. We'd met him the previous day when we'd come out of our hotel needing a trishaw to take us to the police station to report a theft (more on that later). There were lots of tuk tuk drivers vying for trade, Nimal's red trishaw was on the opposite side of the road, facing the wrong way and yet it was eye that I caught.

This quickly turned out to be a good thing since he spoke really good English. Having got us to and from the police station, we agreed to have him come in the morning to take us to a couple of attractions beyond walking distance (a temple and the turtle farm).

Again, we connected as we chatted about our lives. One question we often asked people in Hikkaduwa is whether they were around during the tsunami time and what happened to them. For Nimal the turtle farm owner, it meant the loss of significant parts of his family, though he himself was in Colombo on the fateful day.

For Nimal our tuk tuk driver, it meant anxious hours searing for his wife and her mother who'd been at the market. He says that God spared them - interesting language from a Sri Lankan Buddhist who technically doesn't believe in an interventionist God. We chatted about how he saw things, including his faith - we were standing on the shore at a Buddhist temple that has a prayer house on a tiny island about 100 metres off shore that many people were going to in a small boat.

Our conversation led to an invitation to go back to his house to meet his family and see how he's getting his life back together. Driving his tuk tuk means he's earning money that he's investing in developing his property. Now he has a house that he can rent out - he showed us round it and it's pretty decent, only lacking air conditioning. We'd seriously consider staying there next time we go - it would cost a seventh of the cost of our hotel!

As we drank tea and chatted with his daughter who's also learning English, looked round his rental property, made suggestions about how it could be more attractive to English tourists, I was aware that this was not the kind of transaction I normally have with a cab driver.

Finally, we reconnected with a seamstress called Kandy. We met her last time we were in Hikkaduwa and she was delighted to see us again. She and her husband had been injured in the tsunami and still need treatment on damaged limbs five years on. Their business was washed away and they've been building it back up ever since. We bought a few things - she insisted on giving a couple of items.

Then she invited us for tea and bananas at her home. So we went. She's living on the top floor of a rented house with virtually no furniture and no windows or doors. We chatted about business, the lack of tourists, the trauma of the tsunami time, the difficulty that the poor and ordinary people (as she called them) have faced in the years since rebuilding their lives with very little outside help.

We were invited for dinner - fish curry, rice, vegetables - and continued the conversation, listening to Kandy tell her story and share her concerns. She has a son, who we also met, who works at an outdoor pursuits centre on the lake behind Hikkaduwa, particularly teaching people to kite surf. This is a family struggling to get on, facing all the pressures that families the world over face making ends meet, staying safe, trying to improve their lot and their lifestyle.

Not once with any of these people did we tell them we were Christians, try to share the gospel with them or suggest they go to church. We spent time - all too brief - listening to them tell their stories, offer hospitality, introduce their families and even share a little of their dreams for the future.

So what's missional about all this?

I don't have any answers about this beyond the really obvious observation that you can only share what's on your heart with someone that you have made a genuine connection with. Otherwise you sound like a double glazing salesman or the purveyor of one more bright idea to file alongside all the other information flooding into people's lives. Mission begins with entering another person's world, connecting with what they think and feel and inviting them to step into your world so they have a similar experience.

The question is why we can't make similar connections with our neighbours, people we see more often than those we meet on holiday?

Friday, August 07, 2009

A hand for the drowning

In the midst of our languishing by the pool in Hikkaduwa last week, we had the opportunity to visit a project in Hambantota on the south coast of the island.

It's a pre-school and after school club run by a UK-based organisation that I don't normally have much time for. But this scheme is truly inspiring, fabulously well run and meeting a real need among some of the poorest children in the town.

Hambantota is where the current president hails from and the Chinese are there building a huge new port. Their workers live in a beautifully constructed temporary village with plant lined roads and air conditioning on the edge of the town (at the end of a new road they've also built which will join up with the toll highway under construction - also by the Chinese - that goes from Hambantota to Colombo).

The school serves the needs of a community of poor families who live behind the dunes on the shoreline. Those dunes saved the community from the worst effects of the tsunami; many others in the city, especially those at the Sunday market, weren't so lucky - the devastation was truly apocalyptic.

Fifty or so three to fives gather each day of the week for breakfast, structured play and learning, ending with lunch before going home. For most of them, it's the only really decent food they get. The workers say that when the kids arrive for breakfast on Monday, they are constantly emptying their plates and asking for more.

Having seen the end of the morning programme and helped to serve lunch, we went off to see the area they come from. There is an effort underway to replace their mud and wood houses with brick built ones but it's going off at half-cock. Terraces of houses (6-8 in a line) are being built by local builders who lack the skill and resources to do a decent job. Many of the would-be homes languish half finished because no one has the money to complete them. They are meant to be two-storey so they all have stairways leading to a hole in what is currently the roof, so none of them are water tight. They also lack windows and doors - though they are supposed to be coming.

But the real issue is water. The local authority owns the land the homes are on and they will supply a tap with a water meter for 15000 rupees (that's £78.23 at today's exchange rate). The authority will pay half that cost for each tap, leaving these abjectly poor people to find 7,500 rupees to make up the balance. You might as well ask them to deposit a million dollars in person on the moon!

So there are squabbles over water and people are left with the indignity of washing outside with their neighbours watching.

The authority has also said that no one can have an indoor kitchen. So most cook on open fires outside their wooden shacks. Some have begun to construct wooden lean-tos against their designated brick house to serve as a kitchen - with an open fire - as and when they move in.

The kids are lively, wide-eyed, craving attention. When they arrived at the project in January, they were all under-weight, averaging just 10 kilos, somewhat less than a well-fed three year old should weigh. The project aims to build them up physically as well as providing a grounding in education - maths, Sinhala and English, social skills and friendship. In many ways the project is a mirror of the pepe projects run by BMS in various places.

I came back to my relatively luxurious hotel full of awe and despair. This little project is a tiny boat in a rough sea of need. What made the despair deepen was seeing rich, sassy Sri Lankan young people, down from Colombo for the Hikkaduwa beach festival, drinking, smoking, playing with their mobiles and camcorders: it was hard to believe we were still in the same country.

Thursday, August 06, 2009


Back in blighty after 24 hours of travel yesterday. Knackered but in good heart!

I'll catch up with some final Sri Lanka reflections over the next couple of days.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Final day

Final day in Sri Lanka. I've got lots to catch you up with but that will have to wait our my arrival back in the UK.

For now, we're off to the Galle Face Hotel for high tea - very civilised. As I said in an earlier post, my mother used to dance and drink G+ts when she was stationed here during the war. So I go in memory of her.

Then tomorrow our flight is early and gets back to Heathrow late the same day - though we lose five and a half hours along the way, so it'll be a bit of a marathon